Fiction September 2012


Love happens, like age or weather. It’s not hard to do, only to endure, sometimes.

Caroline always prepares Fred’s breakfast herself. Her young brother’s looking sallow around the eyes. “We saved you the last of the kippers,” she says, in a tone airy enough to give the impression that she and Pet had their fill of kippers before he came down this morning.

Mouth full, Fred sings to his niece in his surprising bass.

His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,

And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Pet giggles at the face he’s pulling. Caroline slides her last triangle of toast the child’s way. Pet’s worn that striped frock since spring. Is she undersized, for two years old? But then, girls are generally smaller. Are the children Caroline sees thronging the parks so twig-like, under their elaborate coats? “Where did you pick that one up?” she asks Fred.

“A fellow at the office.”

“Again, again,” insists Pet: her new word this week.

Caroline catches herself watching the clock.

Fred launches into song again as he rises to his feet and brushes the crumbs from his waistcoat with a manner oddly middle-aged, for twenty-three.

Onward through life he goes …

“Come, now, Pet, let Uncle get his coat on.” Fred mustn’t be late, but that’s not it: Caroline wants him gone, so she can tackle the day. The child, windmill-armed, slaps imaginary dust out of her uncle’s trousers while her mother adjusts his collar. Not that he has any real prospect of advancement from the ranks of draftsmen, but still, no harm in looking dapper. She nearly made an architect of him, so very nearly; another few years would have done it. Nearly never knit a sock, as their mother used to say in sober moments.

“Bye-bye,” chants Pet, “bye-bye, bye-bye.”

Fred always leaves to catch his omnibus with a cheerful expression. Does he like his work, she wonders? Or just put a brave face on it for thirty-five shillings a week?

Caroline carries the tray down to the kitchen and leaves the dishes for the girl. Pet drops a saucer, but by some miracle it only spins loudly on the tiles. Upstairs, to do the beds together, shaking out the blankets; Caroline straightens everything as soon as her daughter’s back is turned. Then down to the parlor again, where she takes up her mending while Pet wreaks havoc in the sewing box. The room is cooling down as the fire goes gray.

Fred needs new cuffs. These ones are so frayed, it would be throwing good thread after bad to darn them. Or that’s her excuse; Caroline’s fingers are stupid with the needle. Her little brother, her charge and her pride, and she sends him out every day a bit shabbier. Toast crumbs still gritty in her throat, and already Caroline is reviewing the contents of the pantry, brooding over lunch. The remains of yesterday’s beef?

“What a tall tower,” she marvels, watching Pet set another spool on top of the quivering structure. Spools crash and roll across the room. Caroline jumps, pricks herself. “Pick up now,” is all she lets herself say, sucking her finger. “Good girl,” she cries when her daughter produces the last dust-rimmed spool from under the table. Is false cheer better than none, she wonders? So much of motherhood is acting.

Usually she manages to get Pet down to sleep by noon, when the girl comes in to mind her, but today Pet is wound up, squeaking in her own private language, rattling buttons in the tin.

A confident knock at the door. Early, how can he be this early, before the maid’s even got here? What makes him believe, what gives him the right—

Anger tightens the drawstrings of Caroline’s face. “A visitor for Mamma! Would you like to sit here quiet as a mouse and play with Mamma’s jewels?” Before she’s finished speaking she’s thundering up to her room, taking the stairs two at a time, Pet stumbling in her wake.

She grabs the box from her dressing table. The second knock, still sprightly. He’ll wait, won’t he? Surely he’ll give her a minute to get to the blasted door—

As she reaches the hall again, passing the struggling child on the stairs, her skirt almost knocks Pet over; Caroline takes the child’s small hand and pulls her into the parlor. She’s breathing hard as she sets the jewelry box down on the sofa. Pet’s mouth forms an O of ecstasy. All that’s left are cheap necklaces and bracelets in glass and jet, probably easy enough to break, but then again, not valuable enough to matter. “Be good now, Pet.” Good, what does that mean to a two-year-old whose every natural urge is to poke, to grab, to take the world in her fists and shake the secrets out of it? The fire—Caroline slams the guard across it. “Mamma back soon!”

The third knock hammers as she’s dashing through the hall; she pauses to shake her skirts into shape.

Her smiling apologies overlap with his. This one’s all bluff humor and compliments; he’s brought what he calls a mere token. Caroline stares at the miniature lilies, hides her face in their white stiffness. The scent is sweet enough to hurt her throat. Eerie white bugles, suited to a girl’s coffin. This late in the autumn, they must be hothouse blooms: she reckons the cost.

“Mamma!” Pet, lurching into the hall, heavy with necklaces.

“Stay in the parlor,” says Caroline, picking her up, crushing her against the flowers. She plants her on the sofa again, and in the small perfect ear, very low and fierce, she says “Shh!” Turns to find the visitor leaning in the doorway, grinning as if to demonstrate that he doesn’t mind encountering the little one, on the contrary in fact. It occurs to her that he’s scanning Pet’s features, and her stomach turns.

“Piddy,” remarks Pet, caressing one glacial petal.

What’s a pity? How does the child know about pity? Oh, pretty. Caroline yanks the bouquet away. “Yes, Mamma’s special pretty flowers, don’t touch.”

Upstairs, she chats a bit, marvels at how long her visitor’s mustache is getting. Has he had a very tiresome morning in the City? He’s considering investing in the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway, well, hasn’t that quite a ring to it.

Caroline doesn’t care, not for herself. A leaden sense of her fate presses her against her pillow. But no shame. What time in her day has she for shame?

The sheets have a damp feel against her back, though Caroline tells herself she must be imagining it. She moves the way he prefers, with her ears always pricked. Nothing, not a sound. Could Pet have crept upstairs, might she be outside Mamma’s bedroom door right now, plucking up her nerve to push the door open? No, no, Caroline would have heard something, one of those little gasps of exertion or nonsense words a two-year-old can’t help making. But the man has put his oily mustache to her ear now, he’s grunting like a seal. She can’t hear anything else. She should be making those delicate bird-cries he likes but oh god, what if a necklace has snagged, tightened round Pet’s soft throat? Earrings, she forgot to take the damn earrings out of the box. What would one of those tiny sharp hooks do to a small stomach? Her fingers clamp on the pale meat of his shoulders. Hurry, hurry, do your business and be done with it.

“Oh, sweet Caroline,” he groans.

A rage spirals up when she hears him use her name, a coal-smoke whirlwind wrenching this scarecrow out of her, hurling him against the walls, whipping him through the pealing glass to fall like rag ’n’ bones on the Brompton street, where the next passing carriage will flatten his face into stone and mud.

A small sound brings her back to herself. Rocking away on top of her, the visitor doesn’t notice, but Caroline can make out voices in the parlor, one deeper than the other. The girl at last, ten minutes late by the clock on the dresser. It’s all right. Pet’s all right. Caroline’s teeth unlock.

Love fizzes like acid in her bones. She doesn’t have to fake that.

Lunch is the last of the beef, in a soup, bulked out with turnips. Pet pushes her bowl away, but Caroline puts the spoon between the little pink lips over and over.

Presented by

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue now lives in Canada. Her books include the best-selling Room (shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes) and Slammerkin. “Onward” is from a new collection of short stories, Astray.

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